A smaller House of Lords: The report of the Lord Speaker's committee on the size of the House Contents

3The Burns Committee proposals

A House of Lords of 600 Members

25.One of the central recommendations of the Burns Report is that the size of the House of Lords should be reduced to 600 members and then capped at this number.26 Lord Burns emphasised to us that the key aspect of this proposal is not the figure of 600 but rather the principle of capping the size of the House. He said that whether the cap is set at

500, 550, 600 or 650 is a second order question, because that number can be adjusted as we go along. The key is how to make the substantive change whereby people are no longer appointed for life and where the balance of appointments are made with some objective criteria in mind. That would mean, like in all legislative chambers that I am aware of, that there was a cap on the number.27

26.The importance of imposing a cap is that it deals directly with the tendency for the House of Lords to continue to increase in size. Simply removing a number of peers in one go, or through practising a few years of restraint, would be unable to tackle this long term tendency.

27.The justification for setting the cap at 600, Lord Burns explained, was that it restricts the size of the House of Lords to no larger than the size of the House of Commons.28 What the number should be, Lord Burns admitted, was a difficult question, because while the House of Lords was a full-time chamber, many members work part-time. This meant that working out the numbers needed to fill committees and carry legislative scrutiny was not a straightforward question.29

28.The idea that the House of Lords should be the same size or smaller than the House of Commons was supported by the evidence to our predecessor Committee’s inquiry. Baroness D’Souza said “it seems to me quite sensible, logical, to say that the revising chamber should not larger than the elected chamber”.30 Lord Judge went further saying:

The wide disproportion between the respective functions and powers and the membership of the two Houses of Parliament is self-evident. The House with significantly greater powers and responsibilities, answerable to the electorate, is smaller than the House with lesser powers which is not.31

29.The Burns Committee did not propose an immediate one time reduction to a House of Lords capped at 600. Instead it proposed a gradual reduction through implementing a “two-out, one-in” principle. This is because the Committee placed emphasis on continuing to refresh the membership of the House of Lords while reducing its overall size. Under this scheme a new appointment to the House of Lords could only be made once two existing members have left, in effect allocating one departure to reducing the size of the House and the other to refreshing the membership. This principle would apply until the reduced number of 600 was reached.32

30.This principle, the Burns Committee suggested, would provide an incentive for party groups to encourage current members to retire, as it would allow them to appoint new members to the House of Lords. However, there is also the question of ensuring party balance, and because of this the Report recommended that the party groups operate an “’equal contribution’ basis, whereby each group would be required to persuade the same proportion of its 2017 membership, adjusted for the number of deaths, to retire each year”.33 Targets for departures in the coming years were set out in the Report.

31.This “two-out, one-in” principle would require approximately 450 departures before a target size of 600 is reached. The Burns Report notes that the number of departures in the five years leading up to 2016 was 125 in total. Even under the Committee’s proposed enhanced rate of departures, it would take 11 years to reach 600.34 When asked about the rate of reduction Lord Burns said that his first concern was not getting the size of the House down to 600 but reversing the increasing size of the House. A faster rate of retirement could hasten the reduction in the size of the House, but this would be difficult to achieve while maintaining a fair balance between parties. For example, imposing a fixed retirement age would have an uneven effect across the different party groups, which could cause difficulties. A faster reduction could also be achieved by stopping new appointments; however, this would mean the House would not be refreshed for several years.35 Lord Burns said that it would be possible to look at methods for increasing the rate of reduction once the system was put in place, but that it was important to put the reduction in motion rather than creating a situation where “the best becomes the enemy of the good”.36

32.The effect of implementing the Burns Report recommendations is the very minimum reform which should be contemplated. We support the objective of reducing the size of the House of Lords and capping the Chamber’s size at a maximum of 600 members, but we recommend that this be achieved more quickly that the rate set out in the Burns Report. We recognise that gaining consent for this reform depends upon avoiding unreasonable pressure on existing members to retire, but we urge the leaders of the party groups in the House of Lords to agree to strict retirement targets. We hope a faster rate of retirements is possible while maintaining the equal contribution basis outlined in the Burns report.

Formula for new appointments

33.New political appointments to the House of Lords should, the Burns Committee recommended, be allocated according to a formula based on the result of the previous general election. This recommendation echoes those made over a long period by many bodies, including our predecessors the Public Administration Select Committee (2007) and Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (2013), as indicated above in table 1. Two main methods for measuring the result of the previous general election were considered: seats in the House of Commons, or percentage share of the national vote. The first, the Burns Committee determined, would mean that the House of Lords would too closely reflect the House of Commons and the second would be too far removed from the reality of majority government. As a result, the Burns Committee recommended combining the national vote and the number of House of Commons seats won. This, it concluded, would mean the House of Lords would better reflect the changing political opinion across the country and, through the introduction of term limits, the political opinion expressed over the previous 15 years. This would provide “the stability desirable in a second chamber” while not challenging the “primacy of the Commons”.37

34.The proposed formula would calculate the proportion of vacancies each party was due to receive in the years following a general election. Appointments would be made once a year in a single annual appointment round and the job of determining party allocations and maintaining membership lists would be carried out by the House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC).38

35.It is important that the Prime Minister commits to the proposed cap and to limiting appointments in line with the proposed appointment formula. The adoption of this formula is a vital aspect of the proposals to reduce the size of the House. This system would make appointment of peers more transparent and set out clearly, as called for by our predecessor committees over many years, a constitutional convention that appointments to the House of Lords should reflect the results of the most recent general election.

36.In order to provide confidence in the Prime Minister’s commitment to the proposed cap and limiting of appointments, this should also be set out in the Cabinet Manual.

Oversight by HOLAC

37.The Burns Committee proposes that HOLAC would also be tasked with “ensuring that all nominees are aware, before they accept a peerage, of what being an active member of the House of Lords entails”.39 This could be achieved without giving HOLAC additional powers, and is described in the Report as a “light touch approach” intended to add an extra aspect of scrutiny to those being considered for appointment.40

38.In his pre-appointment hearing with this Committee, the new chair of HOLAC Lord Bew expressed his support for the idea that new members should be made aware of the importance of being a working peer and the commitment this entails.41 Lord Bew also said that while nominees “must have expeience and expertise to bring to the work of the House, the House of Lords needs to look more like the country.”42 He emphasised the achievements of HOLAC in promoting diversity through its appointments but noted that HOLAC had no say on the diversity of appointments from political parties.43

39.We welcome the proposals in the Burns Report to strengthen the role of the House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) in ensuring nominees are made aware of what being active member of the House of Lords entails. We recommend that all political parties and HOLAC provide a written statement of nomination setting out why a person is being nominated for a peerage and how this qualifies them to contribute to the House of Lords. The person nominated should also make a written statement prior to the nomination being approved, setting out how they intend to contribute to the work of the House of Lords, in particular to the scrutiny of Bills and other legislation, and in general to the work of the Committees of the House. This statement would be published when the peerage is announced.

40.The current membership of the House of Lords, as Lord Bew pointed out to us, in many areas does not reflect the country which it serves. While changes have started to be put in place, it is important that new appointments better reflect the make-up of the UK, in areas such as gender, region, ethnicity and religion. We recommend that HOLAC be given the role of monitoring and reporting on the diversity of nominees and peers for all groups. It should publish recommendations identifying which groups or communities require better representation, which should be aimed particularly at the political parties responsible for the majority of nominations.

15-year fixed terms

41.The system that the Burns Committee recommended would ensure that the membership of a capped House of Lords would continue to be refreshed, this is underpinned by the proposal of a single non-renewable term of 15 years for new peers.44 This fixed term would be achieved by requiring new members to sign an undertaking to only serve 15 years, and by making failure to adhere to this a breach of the House’s code of conduct. Existing Members would not be required to sign up to a term limit. While the Committee recommended 15-year terms, they also considered 20-year terms and concluded that it was the introduction of a fixed term, rather than a particular length, that was important to the proposed reduction system.45

42.Lord Burns explained that there was a clear feeling in the Burns Committee that one of the strengths of the House of Lords was the greater degree of independence of its members from party political influence compared to the House of Commons. While the Burns Committee had sympathy with the idea of renewable terms, the more they examined the idea the clearer it became that this would compromise the independence of party members, as it would effectively give power to the Whips over who would be reappointed.46

43.The introduction of 15-year term limits for new life peers is perhaps the most radical element of the scheme and it will immediately create two classes of peer with all existing peers remaining appointed for life, and all new peers for a fixed term. There are members of both Houses who have been highly effective parliamentarians for far longer than 15 years, and this fixed term could remove peers at the peak of their effectiveness. However, the questions that some might raise about 15-year term limits should not become an impediment to the adoption of the rest of the Burns Report proposals. In particular, the formula determining appointments and the cap on the size of the House can be implemented without adopting term limits. A fixed term limit is desirable but not essential and should continue to be kept under consideration.

Other principles of appointment

44.The only exception to appointments being made once a year, under the Burns Report proposals, would be for the appointment of a person to the House of Lords to become a Minister. Such a person could be appointed at any time and would come out of that party’s allocation at the next round of appointments.47

45.The Burns Committee proposed that Crossbench membership of the House should maintain its current proportion, which would give Crossbenchers 134 out of 600 members. These members should continue to be appointed predominantly on the recommendation of HOLAC. The two exceptions to this would be the 10 Prime Ministerial Crossbench appointments and appointments of Supreme Court Justices. Currently the Prime Minister by convention does not appoint more than 10 Crossbench peers in each Parliament. To account for the potential of early elections, the Burns Committee recommended this convention be adjusted to 10 appointments every five years rather than every Parliament.48

46.The Burns Committee also recommended that Supreme Court Justices be given a peerage upon appointment to the Court, to ensure that legal expertise is maintained in the House, but that they would not take their place in the House until they retired from the court.49 The Burns Committee recommended, however, that these Justices commit to serve a shorter term of seven years to ensure proportionate representation as part of the Crossbench membership of the House.50

Hereditary Peers and Lords Spiritual

47.As the system proposed by the Burns Committee is designed to be implemented without legislation, there are two groups that cannot be reduced and therefore need to be taken into account within the proposed system. The existence of the 26 Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords is set out in statute. For this number to be changed would require legislation, and so the Burns Committee’s proposal was to reduce the number of appointed (and hereditary) members of the House to 574.

48.Under the House of Lords Act 1999, all but two of the remaining 92 hereditary peers must be replaced through by-elections when they retire or die. The Report recommended that hereditary peers also be asked to undertake to sit for no more than 15 years, which would keep the terms of hereditary peers in line with directly appointed colleagues. However, these vacancies must, “in some cases by law, in others by convention”, be filled by a person from the same group as the original 1999 peer.51 As these appointments are mandated by statute, in order to remain in line with the proportions set out in the Burns formula, these peers would have the first call on any party (or Crossbench) group’s annual appointment round. Given that the hereditary peers are disproportionally from the Conservative (51) or Crossbench (30) groups, the continued presence of the hereditary peers would limit in particular the spaces for other appointments within these groups, as noted in the Report.

49.Lord Burns told us that because his Committee’s proposals were intended to be implemented without legislation, it had to leave to one side the issues of bishops and hereditary peers. He said he thought it was quite important not to get involved with issues like these, which were “extremely difficult and would simply lead to the postponement of any plans”.52

50.The issue of the hereditary peers and the Lords Spiritual highlights the fact that the proposals of the Burns Committee cannot be regarded as anything other than a temporary expedient pending primary legislation on Lords reform. When the cap of 600 peers has been achieved, almost 20 percent of the Upper House will comprise of bishops and hereditary peers. Such a House will not be representative of the diversity of the modern United Kingdom.

30 Oral Evidence taken on 31 January 2017, HC (2016–17) 811, Q38 [Baroness D’Souza]

31 Written evidence to HC (2016–17) 811, Lord Judge (HOL002)

32 Written evidence to HC (2016–17) 811, Lord Judge (HOL002)

41 Oral Evidence taken on 6 September 2018, HC 1142, Q10 [Lord Bew]

43 Oral Evidence taken on 6 September 2018, HC 1142, Q6 [Lord Bew]

Published: 19 November 2018